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Jacques Derrida was one of the most famous, controversial,
but also wise figures in recent French intellectual life.
He invented a way of doing philosophy that he called
Deconstruction, which fundamentally altered our understanding of many academic fields,
especially literary studies.
Derrida was born in 1930 in El Biar, a suburb of Algiers, in what was then French colonial Algeria.
His family were jews, his father a salesman for a local wine firm.
He was initially slow at school and harbored dreams of becoming a professional soccer player.
In 1942, under new laws enacted by the collaborationist French Vichy regime,
Derrida, like all other Jewish children, was forcibly excluded from his Lycée
and spent a lot of his time at home with his mother.
He suffered greatly from the anti-semitism of Algeria's majority Muslim population
and was deeply marked by the experience of having been in an inferior position
at the nexus of three different religions:
Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which claimed to speak the truth
none of which knew how to treat the others with particular respect.
In 1949, just turned 19, Derrida traveled to Paris to take up a place at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure.
He was a Brilliant student, but in an odd position.
Highly privileged in terms of education,
but utterly at the margins in Metropolitan France in his status as an Algerian jew.
Though Derrida was not an autobiographical writer,
It's hard not to read his work as a highly abstract response to his first-hand knowledge of bigotry
and exclusion.
It was from the late 1960s onwards the Derrida began to develop the ideas that made his name.
In time he became a celebrity intellectual around Europe and America.
He was hugely glamorous. A good-looking man with great taste in raincoats and haircuts.
He had a rich, diverse and complex love life.
In 1980 he was arrested on a wholy full drug smuggling charge, but was supported by the French president and
politicians from both left and right.
He loved playing snooker and devoted most of his afternoons to the game,
which he played with exemplary skill.
He died in 2004 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 74
Derrida wrote 40 books, all of them abstruse and subtle.
But his importance for us can be revealed by examining three initially odd sounding terms he often used:
Deconstruction, Aporia and Logocentrism.
Behind the High-flown vocabulary, lie some crucially important ideas.
Deconstruction is the word most commonly associated with Derrida.
He used it to describe the way he went about thinking,
though when other people started using this term he quite often felt
they'd misunderstood what he meant by it.
Essencialy, Deconstruction means dismantling our excessive loyalty to any idea
and learning to see the aspects of the truth that might lie buried in its opposite.
It was in 1967 that Derrida published his first major book: "Of Grammatology".
Its overt topic is admittedly rather strange, even tedious.
Derrida was convinced that western philosophers since Socrates
had systematically privileged speech, which was seen as authentic communication,
over writing, which was regarded as a mere transcript of what people might say,
a secondhand report lacking the interaction and truthfulness that comes with conversation.
In itself this hardly feels like an urgent issue
But the drama of Derrida's work came from the bigger idea he developed from this claim.
His overarching ambition was to advance a vast troubling proposition.
But once we begin to examine it closely, almost all our thinking is riddled with a false,
that is unjustified and unhelpful, privileging of one thing over another.
Speech is privileged over writing,
reason over passion,
men, at least for long periods, over women,
words over pictures,
sight over touch.
Derrida score point was that this privileging involves a failure to see the merits and value
of the supposedly lesser part of the equation
Derrida was not so much making the nihilistic point that everything is worthless.
He was stressing that the neglected
counterparts in some of our key oppositions are worthy of love and a attention.
Over his 40 books, Derrida deconstructed a range of key binary terms.
Reason vs passion, masculinity vs femininity, profit vs generosity, high culture vs low culture.
His hope was that we could learn to live more ntelligently
with some of the conflicts that lay beneath these terms,
that we could come to see that both sides were on to something,
that both were a bit wrong, that both needed each other, and that the tension between
would by necessity always prove irrevocable.
It might look as if Derrida was always using Deconstruction to attack tradition
and the free market and to promote a left-wing egalitarian agenda,
but it was a great deal more subtle than this.
For example in his deconstruction of the idea of equality,
Derrida proposed that the assertion that equality is always better than inequality,
though this might be a modern liberal axiom, is, in fact,
unstable and obscure, and he pointed out that some of the best human situations
we know are obviously not examples of equality in action.
Derrida, a devoted professor and father,
wrote beautifully and at length about the relationship between pupils and teachers
and children and parents.
To deconstruct an idea is to show that it's confused and riddled with logical defects
and that we must keep its messiness constantly in mind.
Derrida was criticizing our tendency to imagine that behind every problem
lies somewhere a good and neat solution.
We offer him creatures destined to live our lives without clear answers,
and that the craving for them is at the root of our troubles.
He wanted to cure us of our love of crude simplicity
and to make us more comfortable with a permanently oscillating nature of wisdom.
For instance, he argued that we might be rightly confused about the merits of Capitalism and Socialism,
or the relationship between love and sex, but that we should never rush to conclusions around these topics
There are useful things to be said on both sides of these equations.
To conclude that capitalism is either splendid or sinful, or that love and sex are either
very closely linked or have nothing much to do with one another
is to avoid grappling with a fraud and kaleidoscopic nature of reality.
Being confused and uncertain around such concepts
Isn't a sign of weakness or stupidity. It is for Derrida the central mark of maturity.
Derrida's tactic was to glamorize this condition and to give it a positive ring,
which is why he brought back into use a beautiful Greek word:
Aporia, meaning impasse or puzzlement.
He was proposing Aporia as a state we should feel proud to know and to visit on a regular basis.
Confusion and doubt and not embarrassing dead ends in a Derridean world view.
They're simply evidence of the adulthood of the mind.
One of Derrida's chief targets of Criticism was a way of thinking that he called Logocentrism.
By which he understood an over hasty, naive devotion to reason, logic and clear definition,
underpinned by a faith in language as the natural and best way to communicate.
Derrida, who loved music and art, stressed that many of the most important things we feel
can never be neatly expressed in words spoken or written, as a logocentric tends to forget.
An instance of logocentrism which particularly interested Derrida was the prestige of the idea of
IQ, which measures primarily a person's ability to solve logical puzzles,
But which largely ignores many other qualities of mind,
for example, telling us very little about a person's capacity for friendship, for being a parent,
ror having fun or managing their emotions
For Derrida certain people might not be so brilliant at completing geometrical sequences,
but that would tell us very little about their skill at making a success of a marriage,
a business, a holiday or a party.
All of whose importance Derrida understood well.
As an esteemed professor who lectured in the world's best universities
Derrida, who was also a snooker and football loving Algerian jew,
was casting doubts on the entire foundations of the modern intellectual worldview.
Like many important thinkers,
Derrida can be cherished as a corrective to certain excessive attitudes.
In his case, an overzealous devotion to reason and clear-cut answers.
Derrida didn't want to remove all hierarchies.
he knew it was right that kindness should be privileged over cruelty, wit over dullness, generosity over meanness
But he also understood how off we unwittingly dismiss things people and ideas
when their opposites bask in what might be an arbitrary status.
At its best, Derrida is a voice of modesty and patience
asking us to see what might be a value in those ideas
we too easily overlook and to get curious about why it might be nice to be always,
even if only for a little while, on the other side of any debate.
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PHILOSOPHY: Jacques Derrida

540 Folder Collection
Dead_P published on November 7, 2017
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